Being Seen

February 28, 2018

Debbie Shirkey and her mother-in-law, Kathy Shirkey

I had the unique position of traveling with my mother-in-law the other week and watching her wonderful, dynamic way of noticing others. Kathy Shirkey strikes up conversations everywhere she goes.  And I do mean everywhere—the checkout line in the store, the elevator, with people in line at restaurants, those eating at the table beside her, even people in the restroom stall beside her. She is the definition of “I’ve never met a stranger.”

I’ve always known this about Kathy. She’s outgoing and gregarious, quick with a story and easy to talk to. But on holiday these traits seem to be exaggerated. I must admit, I’m a bit jealous of her ease in talking with others. Conversations seem to flow so effortlessly.

This is also not the first time we’ve traveled together, so I’ve heard a lot of “Kathy stories” before. Like how she lived in Hawaii when she graduated college, or how she met her husband Nick in a bar in California, or how she taught swimming at the Y for years on a lake, but when she saw the ocean the first time, she ripped off her swimming badge because there was no way she was going to dive into that water and try to save someone.

What was different about our recent trip, however, was my focus not on the stories she told, though of course they are great, but on the people with whom she chose to share these stories. The people she befriended both by sharing her stories and by asking others about theirs. I made a conscious effort to watch the reactions of others.

It’s a wonder to behold the dynamic that takes place when Kathy gets going.

“Is that scallops you’re eating? They look good. Would you recommend them?”

“Hi, I see you’re in line for the Polynesian Show. Have you ever been to this show? I hear it’s a hoot.”

From there the conversations usually delve into either a shallow or deep trough of past experiences. “The scallops are great.” “No, this is my first time to Hawaii, and I’ve heard the show tells the history of the islands.” You get the idea. It’s the dance of people making small talk and finding out a little bit about one another.

What I found fascinating was that people, though they knew it was unlikely that their paths would ever cross again, loved being noticed. Someone had taken the time to notice them, to talk to them, to ask about them. To see them. Not the person beside them or behind them, but them.

Yes, there were a few people who didn’t want to engage (like the couple beside us at the fancy French restaurant, who I can only imagine thought Kathy must be an undercover-planted chaperone). But the huge majority seemed to thrive on Kathy’s advances. To have someone take a moment out of their day to ask about theirs.

I wonder sometimes what it would be like if we all took that time to notice those around us. Not those we already know necessarily, but the strangers whose paths we cross every day. What if we took a note from Kathy’s playbook and said, “Hi, that’s a great smile you have. Are you headed to this corner, too? I’d love to walk with you.”

– Debbie Shirkey

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